The best way to improve leadership communication? Keep it real.

9 steps to build connections with employees

Reciting packaged information may be okay for reporting the news, but it’s not an effective way for leaders to communicate. Employees are skeptical of formal, pre-scripted speeches filled with corporate jargon. Instead, employees crave relatable, sincere conversations.

That’s why every leader should look for opportunities to have informal communication encounters, like having coffee with a few employees or eating lunch in the cafeteria. To boost employee engagement during these experiences, here are 9 steps to follow:

1. Set objectives. Don’t just show up; think about why you’re bringing people together. Is it to share perspectives or would you like to gather ideas and act on them? Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can plan accordingly.

2. Decide on one to three topics. While a completely open dialogue sounds appealing, it’s actually easier for participants when you focus on a topic or two. That way, employees have a reference point. For example, you could spend a few minutes informally talking about an initiative like customer service. Then ask employees questions: “What is going well about this? What challenges do we face?” and get the discussion started. Later in the session, pose an open-ended question: “What else is on your mind?”

3. Be selective about your guest list. For the liveliest conversation, mix up participants to include different roles, functions or levels. If possible, avoid inviting managers and their direct reports — that inhibits candor.

4. Provide ground rules. Start the session sharing what to expect: “I’d like to give everyone a chance to talk, so I may ask you to wrap up a comment or call on you to ask your viewpoint. Your candor is appreciated, but please be respectful of other people’s viewpoints.”

5. Ask for employee’s perspectives. Dialogue is the most powerful tool in leadership communication. It allows employees to feel like they’re part of the process. You can give them a few prompts to help them start a conversation such as, “What challenges do you think we’ll face in achieving our objectives?” or “What questions do you have about this change?”

6. Use real-world examples, advises John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “Examples work because they take advantage of the brain’s natural predilection for pattern matching,” Medina writes. “Information is more readily processed if it can be immediately associated with information already present in the brain. Providing examples make the information more elaborative, more complex, better encoded, and therefore better learned.”

7. Emphasize meaning, not details. Our brains pay more attention to the core of an idea than to details. You know all those PowerPoint slides you prepare for the town hall — with data about finances, initiatives and a host of other topics? That information is just white noise, according to brain science. “If we don’t know the gist — the meaning — of ‘information, we are unlikely to pay attention to its details,” writes Medina. “The brain selects meaning-laden information for further processing and leaves the rest alone.”

The solution, of course, is to ditch the data and emphasize meaning. “If you are trying to drive information into someone else’s brain, make sure he/she understands exactly what it means,” advises Medina. To do so:

  • Explain the context behind the concept you’re trying to convey.
  • Tell the story of how you got to where you are today. “First, we realized we needed to change this process. Then we studied different options. We chose the one that best meets our needs, and since then, we’ve been making adaptations, so it fits the way we do business.”
  • Share the “why.” Okay, you’re doing this great thing. Why is it important? How does it fit into what’s happening in the marketplace? Or society? Or relate to the company’s priorities?
  • Relate this to something else employees are familiar with. You can develop your skill for creating metaphors by focusing on how your concept is similar to ordinary experiences. How is process improvement like cleaning a closet, for instance? Or innovation like cooking?

8. Speak in plain language. Explain topics the way you would to your mom, or your old school friend (the one who didn’t get his/her Ph.D.) or a seventh grader. These people are all smart, but they’re not steeped in the technology or the processes or the lingo.

9. Be yourself. The more emotionally connected employees feel to their leaders, the more trusting they’ll be. Leaders can create this confidence in employees by sharing unique perspectives, speaking from the heart, going off script whenever they can and, most importantly, practicing what they preach.

To truly enhance employee engagement, skip the formal leadership communication and have meaningful, authentic encounters with employees. And when the session is over, thank participants for their candor.